Lancaster Newspapers (LNP) invited Elizabethtown College to participate in a panel discussion about free speech and political correctness on college campuses. The forum took place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at the Ware Center at Millersville University. Millersville cosponsored the event and more than 120 people attended.
Senior Katelyn Gebbia, Equity and Title IX Coordinator Dr. Armenta Early Hinton and Director of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Monica Smith represented Etown on the panel. Other panelists were from Millersville, Franklin and Marshall College, Stevens Institute of Technology, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster Bible College (LBC) and Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC).
Including Gebbia, Smith and Hinton, over a dozen panelists spoke at the forum. Because there were so many participants, half of the panelists answered questions from the stage for the first 45 minutes of the discussion and the other half took the stage for the second 45 minutes. The panelists who were not on the stage at any given time were free to contribute from the front row of seats.
According to LNP Opinion Editor Suzanne Cassidy, the forum was higher education reporter Tim Stuhldreher’s idea. “We’ve been reading so much about the concerns of students, faculty and administrators over free speech and diversity on campus, and we wanted to explore how those concerns were playing out on local campuses,” Cassidy said in an email interview. Cassidy and LNP Deputy Opinion Editor Rich Manieri moderated the discussion.
“Everyone knows you can’t say certain words, but what we need to talk about more is why we can’t,” Gebbia said before the panel. “But how do we do that if we can’t talk about certain things? We need to create spaces where we allow students to talk freely.”
Gebbia said she thinks Etown is doing a good job of focusing on diversity. She was one of the students who worked to create the diversity-themed Mosaic House, which officially opens in October. The house is located just off campus and will host diversity-themed events while being open to students of all backgrounds. Gebbia used part of her time on the panel to advocate for spaces such as the Mosaic House.
Gebbia hoped the panel would be like the Mosaic House by being a place where everyone was welcome to speak their minds. “There’s nothing more boring than going to see a speaker or panel where no one asks questions,” Gebbia said. “With a panel, the whole point is the questions.
If people aren’t getting up and asking questions, then how are we talking? I really hope people feel that they can speak up and ask questions that they might not normally feel like they can ask.”
Gebbia also said she was excited to be able to talk about topics about which she is passionate.
Before the panel, she described how the University of Chicago banned trigger warnings with the goal of maintaining academic freedom.
“They’re trying to say that when you create safe spaces you restrict academic freedom, but the point of these spaces isn’t to stop people from talking,” Gebbia said. “What they need to be doing is promoting these safe spaces so students of color, different socioeconomic backgrounds and the LGBTQ community are free from ridicule and can talk about their communities in a way that validates them.”
Smith has been involved with political correctness throughout her career and said her position as a new Director of Diversity and Inclusion gave her a unique perspective going into the forum. “I think political correctness is just a notion to be challenged because it often leads to uninformed conversation,” she said. “On the panel I look forward to hearing the informed thoughts of my colleagues, and especially those who don’t agree with me, so I can expand my horizons.”
Audience members submitted questions to the panelists on index cards. Questions covered everything from the difference between political correctness and moral correctness to what truth is and whether people should value it over comfort.
One of the questions asked panelists if diversity directors such as Smith are part of the solution or part of the problem. Hinton responded by saying that diversity directors are not supposed to be for minority students, but the majority students who need help understanding diversity.
According to an email from Cassidy, Smith countered a remark from F&M professor Matthew Hoffman while on the panel. Hoffman said that a college campus’ climate can threaten faculty members who have unique points of view.
Overall, Gebbia thought the forum was an educational and important experience for everyone involved. “It’s hard to walk into those spaces as a newcomer with no diversity background and listen to all of those administrators with their fancy diversity talk,” she said in an email interview after the panel. “I hope that people were able to put away their reservations and really listen to the conversation and make their own conclusions.”